By Suzanne Wilson Summers
Houston, Texas is the fourth-largest city and one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the United States, yet it ranks 19th out of the nation’s largest 20 metropolitan areas in postsecondary attainment. Moreover, on the Texas Gulf Coast, the demand for workers with bachelor’s degrees exceeds levels set by the state’s 60×30 plan, which created a statewide goal of ensuring that at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25 to 34 had earned a credential by 2030. By the mid-2010s, despite the large enrollments at regional community colleges, completion and transfer rates remained low.
These concerns prompted Paula Myrick Short, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Houston (UH) System, to explore ways to increase degree completion and to create a regional transfer pipeline that would move more students from area community colleges to the regional universities. What was clear was that the UH System could not accomplish this goal alone. It would require regional two- and four-year partners to work collectively in order to have a meaningful impact.
In 2014, after encountering the work of Complete College America (CCA), a nonprofit working with two- and four-year institutions to improve college completion rates, Short conceived of the idea of Houston Guided Pathways to Success (Houston GPS), “an integrated system of cohesive, interdependent strategies that are designed to increase and accelerate student completion and smooth two-year to four-year college transfer while improving educational quality for Houston-area students.” By creating seamless articulation pathways at scale, partner institutions could encourage students to complete two-year degrees in a timely manner at regional community colleges before transferring to local universities.
In 2015, to build support for the idea, Short invited chancellors and presidents of both two- and four-year institutions to meet with CCA. CCA’s model identifies game changers—practices aimed at increasing completion and transfer. These include increasing the number of students enrolled for at least 15 credit hours each semester, ensuring that all students complete a contextualized math course during their first year, increasing gateway course completion by guaranteeing that all students complete math and English requirements during their first year, and building momentum by having all students chose a meta-major or major.
An examination of IPEDS data illustrated how adopting these practices would benefit both two- and four-year institutions in the region. The data revealed the need to focus on increasing timely completion rates of both first-time-in-college and transfer students. Convinced, the leaders of the seven regional community college systems and universities signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to implement Houston GPS at scale with CCA’s help.
Funded by a local philanthropic foundation, the Houston Endowment, the partner institutions spent 2015 in planning focused on the question of what it would take to fully implement the model. The result, according to Teri Elkins Longacre, vice provost and dean, undergraduate student success, at UH, was an implementation plan built around the identification and collection of key institutional success metrics. Completion of math and English gateway courses became an early focus as a predictor of student completion. As a result of this work, partner institutions began meeting to align math requirements that would facilitate transfer to university programs.
Over the years, the GPS partners have also developed meta-majors—clusters of related degree programs grouped into a single pathway—and designated courses in the first two years of study that would be fully transferrable into degree programs. Additionally, to ensure momentum, students would complete gateway math and English courses during their first year of study. To prevent the accumulation of excess credits and the likelihood of retention and momentum, students at both two- and four-year institutions would select a major early in their academic progress. The end goal was to ensure that students make timely progress toward completion and that two-year degree plans fully articulate with college and university degree programs.
The partners also recognized the need for curricular alignment across institutions. Much of the ongoing data-gathering and sharing operations are geared toward supporting both institutions and faculty as they engage in this work. For the community colleges, data sharing helps faculty identify which courses students have the most trouble passing after transfer and prompts them to examine learning in foundation courses. College and university faculty meet together regularly to hold data-informed discussions about how to improve teaching methods and delivery to increase transfer success.
Although participants in the Houston GPS model have identified and agreed upon common success metrics, each institution owns its own student data and data sharing is targeted to curriculum alignment between institutions. For example, by sharing transfer student outcomes in STEM courses, community colleges could understand where students need additional help and engage in curricular alignment. Disciplinary faculty teams from the partner institutions come together to look at the data in a nonconfrontational manner. A common commitment to helping students succeed leads to open and honest discussions that focus on teaching methods and delivery of content.
The impact of Houston GPS has varied by institutional needs. At the University of Houston–Downtown (UHD), with a student body that is 51 percent Hispanic, 18 percent African American, and 9 percent Asian, the impact has been a move toward more intrusive advising, the hiring of a director of retention services, and block scheduling, according to Faiza Khojah, formerly senior associate vice president of academic affairs. UHD leaders recognized the need for local community colleges to maintain a physical presence on their campus, but this required building trust and collaboration before 2+2 agreements could be finalized. An example is the agreement between UHD and Houston Community College (HCC) to develop a 2+2 program that allows students to complete associate degrees in nursing before transferring into UHD’s bachelor of science in nursing program.
A key lesson from Houston GPS, according to HCC’s vice chancellor of strategy, planning, and institutional effectiveness, Kurt Ewan, is the criticality of ongoing top-level commitment to ensure its continued operational priority. Currently, the partners are increasing efforts to market the program to students. Houston GPS “brings people to the table to talk about how to have a seamless transfer path,” Ewan noted, by creating a forum to build collaborative relationships across institutions. When HCC built a new campus in suburban Katy, Texas, for example, it did so across the street from a branch UH campus at their request.
Regional partnerships between two- and four-year institutions, like Houston GPS, are increasingly a critical means to bolster transfer and degree completion. Growing recognition of the success of such efforts can be seen in the growth of Houston GPS. Starting with seven institutions, it has grown to include 13 two- and four-year institutions with an aggregate enrollment of more than 300,000 students in the Houston-Gulf Coast region. Their members include two HBCUs outside of the UH System, Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University.
Yet, while efforts to date have been focused on two- to four-year transfer partnerships, all agree that Houston GPS must build K–12 relationships. Eventually, they hope to engage regional school districts as partners so that it will be possible to expand the front end of the transfer pipeline and raise degree completion across the Texas Gulf Coast.